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Communism Is Pay-What-You-Want Pricing and Nothing Else

Money is a trap, but how? For many years I believed that radical intellectuals and political revolutionaries (interchangeable terms, I thought) should simply eschew instrumental calculations altogether. As my understanding of intelligence developed, I eventually realized that — though there is a crucial intuition there — this position makes no sense. For starters, I realized I was really tapping into a self-mystified kind of virtue signaling. Anti-conscientious non-instrumentalism is merely a 'fast life strategy,' with a variety of instrumental payoffs, if done correctly. Second, my encounter with Nick Land changed my reading of Deleuze, and that changed a bunch of other things. When I first saw Land's contention that, essentially, commerce is the liberatory vector in Deleuze and Guattari, I honestly thought it was outlandish. Surely these are anti-capitalists, who see money as an apparatus for capturing and oppressing human vitality — at least that's how I remembered it, after reading their books over the course of a few years, a few years back. But the more I revisited their texts, and read their joint biography Intersecting Lives, the more I had to admit that it made sense.

I realized that if I bit this bullet, it would solve a whole slew of other puzzles elsewhere in my personal Bayesian network. It would require the updating of many, many other nodes — something humans have good reason to avoid, given the significant computational and sociological costs — but my estimate of the long-term truth gains of such an update seemed increasingly worthwhile. The tricky confounder here is that what also increased over this period was my own personal need for money, as I knew that some kind of break with academia was increasingly likely. Was I updating because of increasing evidence that monied operations could be consistent with a revolutionary life, or was I "selling out" of the true path precisely because of the factors that make people sell out (getting older, wanting kids, needing more money, etc.)? I was on the fence about this for a while.

Incidentally, one realization that pushed me off the fence was how my communist comrades at the time thought about money. The more I told comrades about my belief that money is evil, the more I realized that almost all of them disagreed. Almost all of my comrades dreamed of big projects requiring money, which would also make money to sustain themselves. They weren't avoiding such projects for fear of money's capture, they just didn't know how to get or make the money required. Once it became clear to me that I could hardly find any other communists who shared my cultivated disdain for money — it really clicked that this principled disdain could never contribute to building communism.

It then dawned on me that this hyper-allergy to monied success I had cultivated since college must have been some kind of weird self-mutilating virtue signal, where I refused myself money-making activity to win friends and status with my pure distance from anything exploitative. I say "self-mutilating" because when I would listen to comrades talk about big monied projects they'd like to undertake, all I could think to myself is, I'm pretty sure we could do that if we put our minds to it — I mean, I am pretty sure I could do it if I put my mind to it, therefore we certainly could — so why are we not just doing this? The answer I ultimately got — implicitly, as far as I could tell, anyway — was that if some people can't do it, then nobody should, even if its one of our own and even if the results are communized. (Or if someone wants to make money then sure, they can, but if their ability to do this alone exceeds the average ability of the individuals in the group then it would have to remain a totally individual side-project; it could have nothing to do with a larger group project. Presumably because the able individual's superior abilities would be too visible, it would just be unbearably awkward.)

If communist activists oppose money out of principle, then I might very well continue to refuse monied projects in solidarity, in the construction of genuine anti-instrumental relations and a revolutionary counter-community. I am still partially convinced that something like this is necessary and desirable, and if I can find the right people then I would still lean toward this. But if activists oppose monied success because they lack the ability, and I believe I have the ability, then constraining my own money-making capacities would not be solidarity but useless self-mutilation at an altar of resentment. Obviously, I am not saying this of every single communist — there is a lot of variation and many solid people with real integrity in communist circles — I am only saying that, over time, this was the underlying reality that generally seemed to demonstrate itself in those circles.

All of these insights converged: I must submit to my fate of becoming filthy rich (should it please God). I would open myself to making money, but I promised myself that I would still need to make sense of and integrate my long-running anti-instrumental intuitions. If the path was not in militant univariate maximization of disinterestedness per se, then what was the best ethical principle for proceeding?

I am not sure, given I've only recently come around to making money on an open market, but I have been struck to find so quickly a candidate for a seemingly ideal principle. Somehow there is already in common parlance a commercial principle that seems to meet the highest ethical bar of a militantly communist or anti-capitalist commitment, namely that nobody should be denied anything, no matter what. The same principle can be uniquely effective in nonetheless extracting the most money from those who have the most money (as in "progressive taxation"). This principle can even be more profitable than naïvely capitalistic practice, at least under certain conditions. This ethically dense but simple principle is known as the pay what you want (PWYW) pricing model: one offers a good or service and allows anyone to take it, asking them to pay any amount of their choosing. For instance, I have used this model in my little experimental Book Assistant micro-service.

It is particularly fascinating and exciting to learn that the conditions under which PWYW is most profitable just happen to be the conditions that characterize the business model of the 21st century intellectual. Chao, Fernandez, and Nahata (2015) find that PWYW is most likely to be profitable when marginal cost is low, markets are small, and behavioral considerations loom large. By the pressure of increasingly unlivable bureaucratization, the radical intellectual (who naturally and sinfully prefers insulation from markets, if available) is forced to discover communist entrepreneurship as praxis — and destiny.

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